Originally Posted Online: Feb. 11, 2012, 6:53 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2012, 9:56 pm

Shoe repair is in R.I. man's soul

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
Jim Faramelli, owner of Leo's Shoe Repair, 315 20th St., Rock Island, is a third-generation shoe repairman, dating back to his grandfather, who was a shoemaker near Florence, Italy.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
Jim Faramelli, owner of Leo's Shoe Repair, 315 20th St., Rock Island, carefully shapes the heel of a shoe after replacing it for a customer Thursday February 9, 2012. Mr. Faramelli says many time customers opt to have an older pair of shoes repaired instead of buying new because they love the way the old ones feel on their feet.
Shoes, hundreds of them, fill tables, floors and a small counter in the cluttered Rock Island shop.

A radio plays in the background as a shoe-buffing machine rumbles on, ready to shine another piece of footwear with its horsehair brushes.

The shoes and boots come in all shapes and sizes, some torn, others missing heels, laces or buttons.

A mound of purses awaits new straps and stitching. Shelves of shoe polish line the walls, next to displays of old-fashioned leather coin purses, a huge selection of shoe strings, and leather belts made in the USA.

"We sell a lot of leather belts," said the man in the long apron with calloused hands. "Good leather belts. See, these won't crack and fall apart like other belts. These are the kind of belts we used to buy when we were kids.


"The laces here, it's stuff you can't find in the average store. There are a million different kind of laces anymore, because shoes are so varied."

The shoe doctor methodically picks another shoe up for diagnosis. He breathes new life into his subjects, fixing heels, replacing soles, stitching and sewing, nailing and polishing.

Jim Faramelli, owner of Leo's Shoe Repair, 315 20th St., is a third-generation shoe repairman, dating back to his grandfather, who was a shoemaker near Florence, Italy.

His grandfather made shoes in the countryside, taking his business where needed to villages and farms.

His father, Leo, came to America in 1909.

"That's when the flocks of immigrants were coming in," Mr. Faramelli said. "He started the business here in 1927. The Depression hit in 1929. He said, back then, there were grown men standing around the street corners here trying to sell pencils and apples.

"Guys didn't have no work. Unemployment was unheard of."

The elder Faramelli taught his son a good work ethic, grateful for the customers he tended to on a daily basis in downtown Rock Island.

"This country meant everything to him," Jim Faramelli said of his father, whose lessons stuck with the son.

"You didn't have no regular shoe college. He was my teacher for shoe repair."

Jim Faramelli started working for his father as a child, learning to stitch and polish, understanding the importance of a shoe to its owner.

After graduating from Augustana College in 1967 with a business degree, followed by two years' service in the U.S. Navy, Mr. Faramelli decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and make a career out of shoe repair.

"I should have a surgical gown," Mr. Faramelli said as he held up a pair of weathered boots.

Many of the repairs are from customers who just can't let go of their footwear.

"This gal can't part with these boots," he said. "She gets them fixed up. There's a hole in the side. They were expensive when she bought them, I'm sure of that.

"Some of these gals ride horses, too. She might just be a country girl. Some of the gals like to dance in western boots, too. That's why they like a leather sole on there."

The door opened, a man coming in on a Wednesday afternoon to pick up three pairs of expensive cowboy boots Mr. Faramelli polished for him. One pair was made of alligator, another from ostrich.

"I can't afford not to take care of these," Mike Carson, of Moline, said. "I bring my boots down here to get them shined. Would I shine these? Heck no. He's got the tools to do it in a manner of minutes."

Mr. Faramelli prefers cash and doesn't take debit or credit cards. The cost to shine the boots was minimal, about $6. Mr. Carson gave him $10 and told him, "that's close enough."

"I dropped off a pair of shoes for my wife the other day," Mr. Carson said. "With what women pay for shoes, you're a fool not to get them repaired."

Mr. Faramelli went back to the job, working at his own pace, pounding nails into a new heel, grinding the edge of a new sole to make it match the edge of the original shoe.

The days go fast, he said.

"I always liked this business. I always thought it was kind of neat. I grew up with it. Through school, I worked here."

Of course, times change. Some 60 or 70 years ago, there were a few hundred shoe repair shops in the Quad-Cities.

He said shoes in bygone days were American made, many on the east coast, while most shoes today are imports.

"They made a lot better shoes than the shoes you buy today," he said. "A rule of thumb is people dressed up more back then. Now, people today go around with big holes in their Sunday best."

The next morning, an elderly gentleman arrived to pick up his wife's shoes. Mr. Faramelli stretches shoes for customers, giving them a better fit.

"I should have picked them up Friday, but my wife ended up having surgery," Rock Island resident Duane Wilker said.

"Oh, is she doing OK?" Mr. Faramelli asked.


As Mr. Wilker began going out the door with his wife's shoes, Mr. Faramelli told him, "If they need more stretching, bring them back in. It won't cost anything."

Mr. Wilker nodded. He's been coming to Leo's Shoe Repair for years. "Thank you," he said.

The door shut, and Mr. Faramelli went back to work, picking up another shoe to repair.

His father, Leo, passed away in 1995. Mr. Faramelli said he always remembers his father's advice.

"My dad always told me to treat people the way you wanted to be treated," he said. "I've tried to live by that."